The Military Writings of
Leon Trotsky

Volume 2, 1919

How the Revolution Armed

The Southern Front

II. Denikin’s Offensive (May 15-August 1919)


Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive by David Walters

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Poltava was ingloriously surrendered. While we can say about Kharkov and Yekaterinoslav that the enemy took us unawares, that argument will not do where Poltava is concerned. After the surrender of Kharkov and Yekaterinoslav we had time to pre pare. Furthermore, not long before Poltava was lost we had taken Konstantinograd. Things seemed to be going well. Then, suddenly ... Poltava fell.

’They betrayed us,’ says one Red Army man. ‘For sure, the commanders at headquarters betrayed us,’ ‘They betrayed us,’ a second repeats. ‘It’s obvious, they were bought,’ adds a third, and even some Communists (presumably not very serious ones) have said at meetings: ‘Poltava was surrendered owing to treachery by the commanders.’

I don’t know about that, comrade Red Army men, I don’t know at all! It may well be that there were some traitors, agents of Denikin, among the commanders in our Poltava army – and also, perhaps, among the Red Army men. But they could not have surrendered Poltava. There are traitors in our armies on the Eastern Front, too, yet we are advancing very well on that front, and giving Kolchak an excellent beating.

Traitors cannot do much harm in an army that is well organised and unified, a fighting, disciplined, firmly-welded army. Traitors are dangerous in an army which is not yet firmly set on its feet, an army which staggers, reels and stumbles. And such an army as that the Ukrainian army still is.

You want to know, comrade Red Army men, who it was that betrayed Poltava? I will tell you honestly: Poltava was betrayed by disorder in the Red Army itself. Two of our regiments, from the brigade of the bandit Bagunsky, took off when they felt like it and disappeared into the blue. That’s who betrayed Poltava. When an unsatisfactory commander is replaced, the self-seekers and idlers start a protracted discussion: shall we or shell we not accept the new commander appointed by the Soviet power? Where military orders are concerned the same thing happens: talk, gossip, discussion ... Section and platoon commanders, and lower-level commanders generally, often take their line not from the orders they receive but from the self-seekers in their sections and platoons. That’s how Poltava was betrayed!

Do they observe strictly the rules for mounting guards? No, they do not. Our Ukrainian units often let themselves be taken by surprise. Do they carry out serious reconnaissance? No, reconnaissance is carried out in ‘anyhow’ fashion. Do they maintain proper liaison? Do they send reports when they should? No and no. They do whatever chances to come into their heads, or just act ‘as things happen’. There is no order, no discipline, no strict responsibility. Everyone, blames someone else: the Red Army man blames his commanders and wrongly accuses headquarters of treachery, while weak, inexperienced commanders put the blame on the Red Army men.

Denikin exploits this situation. His agents roam around all over the place, spreading rumours: ‘Poltava was sold, Denikin bribed the headquarters staff.’ Credulous people listen to this and fools repeat it. Uncertainty, wavering, distrust sets in among the Red Army men, and this suits Denikin very well. In this way he can beat the Ukrainian army with his bare hands!

No, comrades, this empty gossip must stop. It was not traitors who surrendered Poltava, but your own disorderliness. We must now begin to drive this disorderliness out of every corner where it exists, and where necessary take a red-hot iron to it. No trace of impunity for misconduct must be allowed to remain. Every Red Army soldier will answer to the Soviet Republic for every step he takes. A soldier is a soldier, an order is an order! War is a serious business. It does not tolerate thoughtlessness, idle chatter and slovenly behaviour. Commanders and commissars will answer for their regiments with their own heads. Communists must be in the forefront of battle.

To the honourable and courageous, praise and reward: to the cowardly and self-seeking, ruthless punishment!

The Ukrainian revolutionary soldier is a splendid warrior. All he needs is order. Firm, steadfast, iron order. With our combined efforts we shall establish this order. Then we shall get Poltava back. And not only Poltava but also Kharkov, Yekaterinoslav, the Donets Basin and North Caucasia. Then we shall rout Denikin as we have routed Kolchak.

August 3, 1919
[Mirgorod is east of Romodan, on the line to Poltava.]
En Route, No.74

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Last updated on: 22.12.2006